Homage to Catatonia

A Loving Catalog of Orphaned Ideas.

The Wandering Rocks (Chapter 10)

Unlike the other episodes in Ulysses, Chapter 10 (The Wandering Rocks) finds Joyce diverging significantly from the pattern of correspondences to Homer’s Odyssey. The Homeric basis for the episode is merely this: Odysseus is warned to avoid the Wandering Rocks because they are impossible to navigate without divine assistance, so he does. The Wandering Rocks takes place between 3:00 – 4:00 PM and is comprised of nineteen overlapping sections that feature virtually every character in the book, with accounts of two authority figures crossing Dublin acting as a frame: Father Conmee, a high-ranking Church official opens the chapter, while the Viceroy (the embodiment of English authority in colonial Ireland) closes it.

The range of characters in these sections is broad and includes our protagonists, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, but also minor characters such as, to name but a few, Blazes Boylan (Molly Bloom’s would-be lover), Boylan’s secretary Miss Dunne, Stephen’s musically named music teacher Almidano Artifoni, and the young son of Paddy Dignam, whose funeral provided the setting of chapter 6 (Hades). The Wandering Rocks is not, however, strictly linear. In each section the narrative circles back on itself, referencing previous sections and foreshadowing future ones to locate each scene in the overall chronology of the chapter. We repeatedly glimpse, for instance, the moment Molly Bloom’s arm appears from her bedroom window to toss a coin to a begging sailor, and trace the progress of five sandwich-board-men, each bearing a different letter as they advertise H.E.L.Y.’S stationary store by walking together through the streets.

What do we make of this odd jigsaw of a chapter? Most often the Wandering Rocks is described by critics as a labyrinth or maze. This image certainly speaks to the experience of reading the chapter, with all its twists and turns, but critics tend to use the terms “labyrinth” and “maze” interchangeably, when there is actually an essential difference between the two. A labyrinth leads only (and inevitably) towards its own center, while a maze is designed to disorient, confuse, and trap (or, at least, delay) those who navigate it with false leads and dead-ends. When we solve a maze we do not reach its center, we emerge on the other side.

So, what has Joyce created here, a labyrinth or a maze? While we know labyrinths are important to Joyce (Stephen takes his last name from Daedalus, the inventor of the labyrinth) and while the chapter’s placement (chapter 10 of 18) makes it a center of sorts, the content of the chapter suggests the less determined structure of a maze. After spending much of the first eight episodes making us intimately familiar with Bloom and Stephen, Joyce pulls back to remind us that they are actually of little or no significance in the world they occupy. Since fiction typically offers an ordered vision of life where the importance of each character is consistent and clear, this shift is jarring. At the same time, this mixed sense of scale should be familiar to most of us: it is the maze of modern life. “Why is it all so complicated?” Irish critic Declan Kiberd asks in his chapter on the Wandering Rocks in Ulysses & Us. Because, he answers, “Joyce seeks to capture not just the openness but also the randomness of life, something which is almost impossible to do in a neat narrative.”

In The Faraway Nearby, her extended meditation on the value of storytelling, essayist Rebecca Solnit compares books to labyrinths: “A labyrinth is an ancient device that compresses a journey into a small space, winds up a path like thread on a spool. It contains beginning, confusion, perseverance, arrival, and return.” In this sense all books are certainly labyrinths: constructs designed to distract us until we arrive where their designers want us to go. Yet Solnit’s description of mazes sounds more like Ulysses: “a maze . . . has not one convoluted way but many ways and often no center, so that wandering has no cease or at least no definitive conclusion. A maze is a conversation.” So, perhaps Ulysses is both labyrinth and maze. “The world,” wrote philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, “is everything that is the case.” Books are not so limited. Like the puns Joyce loved, a book can be two (or more) things at once. After all, aren’t the best books—the books we return to again and again—both labyrinths and mazes? For while, like a labyrinth, a great book can lead us somewhere new; a great book can also, like a maze, offer us the freedom to become lost.

* * *

Excerpting Ulysses is never easy but excerpting a chapter that many see as a miniature of the novel as a whole is especially frustrating. How to capture its complex, overlapping interconnections? Ultimately, I settled on the final section (in its entirety) simply because it includes more characters than any other. Beginning with a straightforward account of the Viceroy and his wife (Earl and Lady Dudley) passing, king-like, across the chessboard that is Dublin, Joyce pointedly shows no interest in depicting the inner-life of these two figures. Instead, he gives us a litany of the ordinary people they pass in their carriage, each of whom reacts (or, mostly, doesn’t) to these high-ranking personages in different ways. As always, I encourage you to read along to the RTE full-cast performance of the excerpt provided below.

Until next year, then, when we look at the music-drenched Episode 10 (Sirens), I bid you adieu and wish you a happy Bloomsday!


William Humble, earl of Dudley, and lady Dudley, accompanied by lieutenantcolonel Heseltine, drove out after luncheon from the viceregal lodge. In the following carriage were the honourable Mrs Paget, Miss de Courcy and the honourable Gerald Ward A.D.C. in attendance.

The cavalcade passed out by the lower gate of Phoenix park saluted by obsequious policemen and proceeded past Kingsbridge along the northern quays. The viceroy was most cordially greeted on his way through the metropolis. At Bloody bridge Mr Thomas Kernan beyond the river greeted him vainly from afar Between Queen’s and Whitworth bridges lord Dudley’s viceregal carriages passed and were unsaluted by Mr Dudley White, B. L., M. A., who stood on Arran quay outside Mrs M. E. White’s, the pawnbroker’s, at the corner of Arran street west stroking his nose with his forefinger, undecided whether he should arrive at Phibsborough more quickly by a triple change of tram or by hailing a car or on foot through Smithfield, Constitution hill and Broadstone terminus. In the porch of Four Courts Richie Goulding with the costbag of Goulding, Collis and Ward saw him with surprise. Past Richmond bridge at the doorstep of the office of Reuben J Dodd, solicitor, agent for the Patriotic Insurance Company, an elderly female about to enter changed her plan and retracing her steps by King’s windows smiled credulously on the representative of His Majesty. From its sluice in Wood quay wall under Tom Devan’s office Poddle river hung out in fealty a tongue of liquid sewage. Above the crossblind of the Ormond hotel, gold by bronze, Miss Kennedy’s head by Miss Douce’s head watched and admired. On Ormond quay Mr Simon Dedalus, steering his way from the greenhouse for the subsheriff’s office, stood still in midstreet and brought his hat low. His Excellency graciously returned Mr Dedalus’ greeting. From Cahill’s corner the reverend Hugh C. Love, M.A., made obeisance unperceived, mindful of lords deputies whose hands benignant had held of yore rich advowsons. On Grattan bridge Lenehan and M’Coy, taking leave of each other, watched the carriages go by. Passing by Roger Greene’s office and Dollard’s big red printinghouse Gerty MacDowell, carrying the Catesby’s cork lino letters for her father who was laid up, knew by the style it was the lord and lady lieutenant but she couldn’t see what Her Excellency had on because the tram and Spring’s big yellow furniture van had to stop in front of her on account of its being the lord lieutenant. Beyond Lundy Foot’s from the shaded door of Kavanagh’s winerooms John Wyse Nolan smiled with unseen coldness towards the lord lieutenantgeneral and general governor of Ireland. The Right Honourable William Humble, earl of Dudley, G. C. V. O., passed Micky Anderson’s all times ticking watches and Henry and James’s wax smartsuited freshcheeked models, the gentleman Henry, dernier cri James. Over against Dame gate Tom Rochford and Nosey Flynn watched the approach of the cavalcade. Tom Rochford, seeing the eyes of lady Dudley fixed on him, took his thumbs quickly out of the pockets of his claret waistcoat and doffed his cap to her. A charming soubrette, great Marie Kendall, with dauby cheeks and lifted skirt smiled daubily from her poster upon William Humble, earl of Dudley, and upon lieutenantcolonel H. G. Heseltine, and also upon the honourable Gerald Ward A. D. C. From the window of the D. B. C. Buck Mulligan gaily, and Haines gravely, gazed down on the viceregal equipage over the shoulders of eager guests, whose mass of forms darkened the chessboard whereon John Howard Parnell looked intently. In Fownes’s street Dilly Dedalus, straining her sight upward from Chardenal’s first French primer, saw sunshades spanned and wheelspokes spinning in the glare. John Henry Menton, filling the doorway of Commercial Buildings, stared from winebig oyster eyes, holding a fat gold hunter watch not looked at in his fat left hand not feeling it. Where the foreleg of King Billy’s horse pawed the air Mrs Breen plucked her hastening husband back from under the hoofs of the outriders. She shouted in his ear the tidings. Understanding, he shifted his tomes to his left breast and saluted the second carriage. The honourable Gerald Ward A.D.C., agreeably surprised, made haste to reply. At Ponsonby’s corner a jaded white flagon H. halted and four tallhatted white flagons halted behind him, E.L.Y’S, while outriders pranced past and carriages. Opposite Pigott’s music warerooms Mr Denis J Maginni, professor of dancing &c, gaily apparelled, gravely walked, outpassed by a viceroy and unobserved. By the provost’s wall came jauntily Blazes Boylan, stepping in tan shoes and socks with skyblue clocks to the refrain of My girl’s a Yorkshire girl.
Blazes Boylan presented to the leaders’ skyblue frontlets and high action a skyblue tie, a widebrimmed straw hat at a rakish angle and a suit of indigo serge. His hands in his jacket pockets forgot to salute but he offered to the three ladies the bold admiration of his eyes and the red flower between his lips. As they drove along Nassau street His Excellency drew the attention of his bowing consort to the programme of music which was being discoursed in College park. Unseen brazen highland laddies blared and drumthumped after the cortège:

But though she’s a factory lass
And wears no fancy clothes.
Yet I’ve a sort of a
Yorkshire relish for
My little Yorkshire rose.

Thither of the wall the quartermile flat handicappers, M. C. Green, H. Shrift, T. M. Patey, C. Scaife, J. B. Jeffs, G. N. Morphy, F. Stevenson, C. Adderly and W. C. Huggard, started in pursuit. Striding past Finn’s hotel Cashel Boyle O’Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell stared through a fierce eyeglass across the carriages at the head of Mr M. E. Solomons in the window of the Austro-Hungarian viceconsulate. Deep in Leinster street by Trinity’s postern a loyal king’s man, Hornblower, touched his tallyho cap. As the glossy horses pranced by Merrion square Master Patrick Aloysius Dignam, waiting, saw salutes being given to the gent with the topper and raised also his new black cap with fingers greased by porksteak paper. His collar too sprang up. The viceroy, on his way to inaugurate the Mirus bazaar in aid of funds for Mercer’s hospital, drove with his following towards Lower Mount street. He passed a blind stripling opposite Broadbent’s. In Lower Mount street a pedestrian in a brown macintosh, eating dry bread, passed swiftly and unscathed across the viceroy’s path. At the Royal Canal bridge, from his hoarding, Mr Eugene Stratton, his blub lips agrin, bade all comers welcome to Pembroke township. At Haddington road corner two sanded women halted themselves, an umbrella and a bag in which eleven cockles rolled to view with wonder the lord mayor and lady mayoress without his golden chain. On Northumberland and Lansdowne roads His Excellency acknowledged punctually salutes from rare male walkers, the salute of two small schoolboys at the garden gate of the house said to have been admired by the late queen when visiting the Irish capital with her husband, the prince consort, in 1849 and the salute of Almidano Artifoni’s sturdy trousers swallowed by a closing door.



Detective Story #8 – Shavasana

I was tired. It had been a long day—a good day, but long. I sat at my desk and listened to the disembodied murmur of the instructor’s voice coming through the wall from the yoga studio next door. I couldn’t hear the words but I recognized the tone: a slow, loose chant to ease a roomful of pupils through the intricacies of Shavasana, their final position. Corpse pose. My lethargy deepened. Chin in palm, I gazed out the window at dimming dusklight between buildings.

Corpse pose. I stood up behind my desk, grimacing with the pleasure of stretching my legs and straightening my back. I slid the empty client’s chair into the far corner, noting, for the hundredth time, that its turquoise upholstery was wearing thin and needed to be replaced. I returned to the center of the room, slid off my clogs, and knelt down on the carpet, slowly capsizing onto my back. I lay there, arms and legs at 45-degree angles, looking up at the texture of the ceiling.

I closed my eyes, letting the sounds of burgeoning night-life recede until only the instructor’s voice remained, audible but indiscernible. I knew the words were irrelevant, merely a vessel for her hushed, lulling cadence—and even that didn’t matter. All that mattered was sinking into myself, settling into the floor below, feeling the fullness of the moment that would never end. Inhaling quiet, exhaling quietude. The muffled murmur droned on, quieter now, as I drifted loose: adrift and drifting, drifty; floating slow, unruffled and calm in a sea of thought; not asleep, not awake, dusk of mind . . .

Above me, behind me, back in the world I heard I heard three quick, staccato knocks followed by silence, then the slow creak of the door. Even with eyes closed I knew who it was. There were two steps, then a pause. I could hear his wry smile as he said:  “Hey, little sister. Asleep on the job again?”

I squinted my lips into a smile and stayed as I was.

“Hello,” I said, “was I expecting you . . .?”
“Not for me to say, really. But yes: this is an impromptu visit. Bad time?”
“Not at all . . .”
“Is this corpse pose or are you just being weird?”
“A little of both . . .” I was in a place where everything I said seemed to end in ellipses.

I heard shifting, two thuds, a rustle, a creak that I could feel through the floorboards beneath my head and shoulders, then a faint brushing against my hair as he settled on the floor, the top of his head touching mine.

We lay there for awhile, joined at the head like two stray figures cut from a paper doll chain. The voice stopped. There was a moment of silence, a whispered chorus of Namastes, then the resumption of routine as the pupils rolled up their mats and filtered into the hall, their entangled words becoming briefly distinct, then fading down the stairwell.

Then my brother and I savored the shared silence.

” . . .”
” . . .”
” . . .”
” . . .”
” . . .”
” . . .”

I said, “So, what brings you here?”
“Oh, nothing in particular. Been running errands and thought I’d drop in.”

I rubbed my closed eyes and enjoyed the slow motion fireworks of bursting color it created behind my eyelids.

“I hear you’re working on a case for dad,” he said.
“I am. A suicide motive case.”
“No note?” He asked.
“There was a note. It said ‘This is easier’ and nothing else.”
“Sounds like an open-and-shut-case to me. Who can argue with that?”
“You know clients—it’s always about the details; the specifics. Easier than what?”

He sighed. Or exhaled. Or maybe grunted. It could be difficult to tell with him sometimes.

“Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” I said, “You can even ask me another one.”

An old family joke. He let it pass.

“Do you ever wish you had bigger cases; investigations like the ones detectives get in books and movies?”

It wasn’t his usual sort of question. It was more like a question my father would ask, only without my father’s judgmental tone.

“Why do you ask?”
“I’m teaching my course on detective fiction again this semester and I was struck by how different the cases are in the novels we read:  adultery, blackmail, kidnapping, murder . . .”
“I handle adultery cases.”
“Sort of,” he said.

Even with closed eyes and wedges of color pulsing through my personal darkness I could see the expression on his face. It said: You handle adultery cases the way someone building a sandcastle handles the sea.

“I’m not judging, Nadie. Not at all.”
“I know.”
“I’m genuinely curious. Do you ever wish your cases were bigger or more dramatic or do you prefer the minutiae?”

Part of the answer was obvious—and I knew he already knew what my answer would be—but the question was still worth considering. So I considered it until he answered for me:

“I suppose the answer is written on the wall behind your desk. All your cases, no matter how small they may seem, are just clues in the biggest case of all. And I see the truth in that—I always have. Life is a crime—for lack of a better word—that is perpetually in progress. The clues are infinite and forever compounding. There is no way to truly solve the mystery you have set for yourself because it keeps growing to encompass everything that happens everywhere and all the time—including your own efforts. Your investigation is always part of the mystery, just another clue.”

I laughed and felt the hair at the tops of our heads mingle.

“You missed your calling,” I said.
“I always do. Missing callings is my calling.”
I chuckled knowingly. He’d never summed himself up quite so well before.
“Still,” I said, “I’m impressed. I’ve been trying to explain this to dad for years.”
“I struggle with the same issue as a teacher of literature,” he said. “Percy Shelley makes this argument that all of literature is one long text that is forever in progress. That text, it seems to me, is the closest thing we have to an instruction manual for life—and it’s impossible to read it all. I’ve studied and taught the subject for years and have only become more acutely aware of how little I’ve read; how much I’ve forgotten of what I have read. And every day there are new books. But you’ve set yourself the even larger task of trying to solve the mystery that all of those books are struggling to address . . .”

I laughed again.

“You make it sound a little pointless.”
“I make it sound a lot pointless. Because it is. Utterly. Still worth trying, though. ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp’ and all that.”

One of his favorite quotations. Browning. Or what’s a heaven for?

“I think I might have a mystery for you,” he said.
“Really?” I was so surprised I almost opened my eyes.
“It’s been with me for many years; I’ve tried to live with it, tried to figure it out but I can’t seem to make any progress. Maybe you’ll have more luck.”
“I’ll do my best . . .”
“I guess it’s really two mysteries. Possibly more.”
“Mysteries do have a tendency to multiply.”
“They do, don’t they?”

He didn’t speak for a second, so I prompted him:

“And the first mystery?”
“I don’t know what the first mystery is,” he said, “I know it’s there, unsolved, unanswered, generating clues . . . But I have no idea what it is.”

I made a mental note on an imaginary pad: ?

Then I said: “The first mystery is to figure out what your mystery is.”
“Yes,” he said. His voice had grown tight and raspy.

A clock ticked. Traffic whirred. Night fell.

“Well,” I said, still not moving, still not opening my eyes, “What are the clues?”

Detective Story #7 — In Other Words

My first thought was that she had made a mistake.

She walked into my office at 9:30 on a Tuesday morning but she was dressed for a Saturday night. Her hair was bleachy blonde, chin length and messy in that cultivated way that takes time and effort. She was the second client I’d had in the last month who was dressed all in black: black tights, black mini-skirt, black low-heel pumps; a black waistcoat cut in a fancifully military style (complete with epaulettes) that parted to reveal a black top with black sequins across the top. It was a real accomplishment matching that much black clothing, especially in a way that withstood the unforgiving light of morning. Even more impressive, her top was satin and so far as I could see, without a single wrinkle.

Many believe that the basic unit of detective work is being able to observe a person and make deductions about their character based on what they are wearing or how they behave. There is no question that this is a valuable skill. Sometimes, though, it is more useful to ignore appearances because they reveal nothing of value. Like beauty, style and fashion can be great deceivers. They are too easily seen to be truly observed.

Sometimes, the first clue we come across only makes sense later on, when we have more information. So, just as the best way to remember a word or name we have failed to call to mind during conversation is to continue talking until, through the natural channels of speech and thought, it quietly returns to us, the best practice with a clue that commands too much attention without yielding insight is to ignore it until other clues arrive to provide context.

As it turned out, however, this wasn’t a case of lacking the information to understand an important clue. Instead, I had made the equally common mistake of assigning too much importance to the first clue I happened to come across. In fact, once she explained her case, I realized it had been a mistake to attach any importance at all to her hair, clothes, and make-up.

“I want you to find the perfect word to describe this feeling I’ve been having,” she said once she had settled into the chair opposite my desk.

I sat back and thought for awhile.

“This poses an interesting challenge,” I said, “since first you’ll have to describe to me how you feel . . .”
“Totally,” she said, drawing out the middle of the word so it became a groan.
“Let’s start by trying to set some parameters for what sort of word you’re hoping I’ll find.”
“Okay,” she said, nodding.
“First off, do you want an English word or would something from another language work as well?”
“Well, I’d love it if you could find an English word. Even a phrase would be fine. But I’m guessing it will have to be a foreign word or phrase.”
“German is probably our best bet, then,” I said, making a note.
“Maybe,” she said slowly, tilting her head to follow her eyebrows in a leftward gesture of skepticism.
“German,” I ventured, “is a language that seems to specialize in words meant to describe highly specific feelings and mental states.’
“Oh, totally,” she said nodding so vigorously that the sequins on her dress gave a couple sparkly ripples. “I’m just skeptical because I’ve spent a ton of time looking at German words for just that reason.”
“So you’ve already been researching this for awhile?”
“At least a year.”
“Any language will do,” I said absently as I made a note.
“Well, I’d like to steer clear of Klingon,” she said.
The joke took a second to register before I laughed.
“Fair enough,” I said as I added several new sheets of paper to my clipboard and leaned back in my chair. “So: tell me about this feeling . . .”
“I don’t feel this way all the time,” she said, “but it is a very specific state of mind that I experience on a regular basis — maybe two or three days out of every week?”

I nodded, made another note.

“For the most part I am not really an upbeat sort of person. Even when I was a little girl I’d have extended periods of sadness, or just feel this sort of mild hopelessness all the time. My doctor says I’m probably dysthymic but I’m not medicated or anything. I haven’t even gone to a psychiatrist.”

She paused and I wrote some more, making my best guess at how to spell dysthymic.

“But for the last two years I’ve had these bursts of feeling that are totally different from my usual range of moods. Nothing super-weird . . . Just different and unexpected.”

“And how would you characterize this feeling?”

She paused, sighed, then gave a little closed-mouth chuckle.

“I’ve tried to describe this so many times. To friends. To family. In emails. In my diary. I keep hoping I’ll stumble across the perfect word but . . .” she paused, took a meditative breath, then went on: “For days, even weeks, at a time I will go along feeling as though I am on the verge of something new—like I’m standing at a door with my fingers twisting the doorknob until I can feel the . . . the . . .” she frowned and rolled her eyes, turning an imaginary knob with her fingers as she searched for the right word, “the . . . tumbler gives way. Is that right: tumbler?”

“I think you mean latch,” I said, “the part that retracts. Locks have tumblers.”
“Okay: like I’m at a door, and I’ve twisted the knob until the latch is completely retracted and I can feel the door hanging free in the doorway and the only thing keeping it closed is me — not by choice, only because in that final instant of turning the knob to open the door I am actually holding it closed. Do you know what I mean? Like it’s one of those loose old doors that creaks open unless it’s all the way closed with the latch snapped in place —but once you twist the knob the only reason the door stays closed is because you’re still holding the knob. Like it’s floating there on hinges held in place by your hand. Does that make sense?”

It did, so I nodded and said, “Would you describe this as a positive feeling?”
“Yes, definitely,” and her sequins rippled some more, “My feelings about what’s on the other side of the door are really positive. Anticipation doesn’t quite cover it. I have this feeling of hope, even euphoria—or maybe bliss is a better word. My feelings tend to shift.”
“A little, sometimes. But this is where the door analogy kind of breaks down. I’m totally aware that I can’t control when the door opens.”

She frowned again and scrunched up her nose. She tugged at her waistcoat.

“That’s not right either,” she said, “I know I can’t control when the moment is right to open the door . . . I guess it’s like when you’re standing in front of an elevator door and you know the elevator is there but you just have to wait a second or two longer until the doors actually open.”

She thought for a moment, then smiled and said, “I like that. If you can find a word for when someone is just waiting for the doors to an elevator that has already arrived to open, that would work for me.”

I tugged at my ear and nodded.

She said, “But that part about turning the doorknob is still important. The door is there and I can hear what’s coming on the other side, maybe even see some light coming through the cracks and gaps, but it hasn’t arrived yet, so even though I can turn the knob and . . . and feel the freedom of the door, there’s just no way to open it until the other side is ready.”

Feeling the freedom of the door. I knew that freedom—or a detective’s version of it: that feeling that I was on the edge of some vital new clue that would deepen not only my understanding of whatever small mystery I was working on, but also the larger mystery that permeates everything. Sometimes I was convinced such moments were what I loved most about being a detective. Those instants before a key piece of information arrives, when the next clue could be anything . . .

“Anyway,” she said, “I don’t want to get fixated on this door analogy. People do that, you know: get hung up on analogies because they help us think through problems that feel too abstract —or that we just don’t understand well enough. The problem is we get stuck on the particulars of the analogy; like some sort of fetish. Which is why I want a word for this feeling of mine.”
“One could argue that words are just a sort of analogy,” I said.
“Yes, I’ve thought of that,” she nodded quickly, “but words become less particular the more we use them. That’s what a cliche is, if you think about it: an analogy that works so well people start using it like a word. There are even some words that are basically just cliches, analogies we don’t even notice anymore. Even the word metaphor: it comes from the Greek word for transport. The idea is that we transport a word or phrase from one context to another but no one thinks about transport when they talk about metaphors — except maybe in Greece where the word metaphor is on the side of moving trucks.”
“So, what,” I asked, “do you hope to accomplish by finding a word for this feeling you’ve described? Do you hope that the word will help you control the feeling or diminish it in some way? Do you hope knowing the word will help make that elevator arrive a little faster?”
“Oh, no, nothing like that. That all sounds really superstitious to me. I’m just trying to be practical. I want to express what I’m feeling as precisely as possible, even if it sends people to the dictionary.”
“In other words, you’d like to be able to shorten the length of conversations like this one?”

Detective Story #6 — Solving and Dissolving

After I had explained the outcome of my investigation and she had thanked me and handed over her last payment, she surprised me. Rather than getting up and shaking my hand, like most people do at this point, she sat back and exhaled at some length. Then she dipped her head toward her lap for a moment before raising it again to look at me. She had the most rueful hazel eyes.

“What is the best solution you’ve ever found for a mystery?” she asked.

Clients often ask questions like this, though usually not at the end of an investigation and usually not in these words. I asked what she meant by “best” though the real question was what she meant by “solution.”

She pondered my question as she smoothed the plastic lid along the lip of her coffee cup. Then she looked at me and shifted the cup between hands that made the shape of a heart in her lap.

“I suppose I meant cleverest,” she answered, “but what I really mean is most satisfying.” She paused for a second and then tilted her eyebrows in a self-deprecatory way and said, “I find cleverness satisfying—but maybe you don’t?”

I chuckled and said, “Well, I’m as susceptible to being pleased with my own cleverness as anyone else but when it comes to my work you’re right: what pleases me most is an answer that the client finds useful even if it isn’t what she—or he—was expecting.”

That’s my preferred word: answer. Solution implies that something has been solved, that the mystery has been placed in some sort of solution that dissolves all the complications and questions until what remains is the clean, shiny truth that was at the core of the mystery all along. An answer is different; an answer does not imply exclusivity; an answer does not mean the death of the mystery. There is always another answer—and more questions. Answers are only the next level of question.

Answers are the questions that questions ask.

“I suppose you can’t share any examples,” she said. “Confidentiality . . .”
“It depends on the case . . . And with some of the cases where the client is especially happy with the results I’ll ask permission to share the details with potential clients.”
“So, you do have some favorites?”
“I’m thinking of one case in particular.”

She pressed at the plastic lid on the paper cup in her hearted hands.

“I’d love to hear about it,” she said. “I find your work fascinating.”
“I’m lucky to be able to do something I love, that speaks to the core of my being.”

At that her eyes turned sad even as they continued to glow hazel in the slanting morning light.

“Awhile back a man came to me with an unusual request. He had purchased a book at a second-hand shop; a slender little volume bound in calfskin. He wanted me to locate the previous owner—not because of the book itself (a novel by a little-known writer published in the 1920s) and not because of any visible markings in the book. There were no visible markings. No marginalia, no underlined passages, no bookplate, no business card or receipt used as a bookmark, no jottings on the endpapers . . . Nothing like that. But there was one distinctive trace of the previous owner—or of one particular previous owner since such an old book had probably been owned by more than one person over the years.”

I paused to build some suspense then asked if she could guess what it was. She didn’t really think about it, simply shook her head.

“The book smelled incredible. Its pages were permeated with the most delectable aroma. It was intoxicating. Not the delicate, wafting scent of perfume but the rich, smoky luster of incense. My client was obsessed with finding the origin of the scent.”

Then I sketched out the phases of the investigation: first, the bookseller who had told my client over the phone that he had no memory of the book but who recognized the aroma when I visited his shop in person, telling me it was similar to several others he had purchased from a particular book scout months earlier. Then the book scout it took me a couple weeks to find, tracking him through several bookshops and a number of old addresses to a basement apartment where he insisted I give him gas money for his motor-scooter in exchange for the name of the agency that handled the estate sale where he bought the book as part of a lot. Finally, the estate agent who could only tell me that the lot of books purchased by the scout was not from a particular estate but had been bundled by a dealer who had since died.

“I was literally at a dead-end, so I decided to review the case to see if there was another angle of approach. I re-read the book, re-checked my notes, went back over my conversation with the client . . . So often the answer to the mystery is nestled somewhere in that original conversation.”


“It’s like when someone asks for your advice,” I shrugged, “Most of the time the answer is in the way they frame the question. People know what they should do but they’re reluctant or they want reassurance.”
“And was that the case here?”
“It was,” I nodded. “I realized the answer had been there the entire time. It was obvious and the client understood that once I told him.”

I waited until she asked what it was.

“It doesn’t matter.”

She frowned.

“That was the answer,” I said, “That’s what he needed to hear and that’s what I told him: it doesn’t matter.”

Detective Story #5 — A Mystery Is a Poem

She hated when people told her to smile. Not that I ever did—though I could understand the temptation. She smiled so broadly it forced her eyes to close halfway. She could have powered a small city with that smile but I loved her lop-sided frown too.

We came up through the Institute of Higher Detection together. She graduated top of our class (I ranked 14th out of 81). I always imagined, a bit vaguely, that we’d up end forming an agency some day, the way you imagine you’ll end up marrying an old platonic friend even though you know you never will. It’s a big city and there is room for plenty of detectives.

Instead, we meet at least once a month for lunch, ostensibly to support each other since we’re the only two women detectives in the city. For awhile there was a third, an established veteran who’d been around for years, but she refused to even return our calls. Then she retired and moved away. In truth we spend most of our meetings talking about old times or swapping war stories—not exactly the empowering strategy sessions for battling the Old Boys’ network of hard-boiled private eyes that we had envisioned, but still worthwhile.

As usual, we started by discussing current cases.

“You know, for once I actually have a case you might be able to help me with,” she said.
“I don’t know, I’m pretty stupid . . .”
“That,” she replied, pointing at me, “is exactly what this case needs: Stupid. And lots of it.”
“Alright, then, I’ll take off my Thinking Cap.”

That earned a quick burst of laughter that settled into a broad smile. I’d watched men do some pretty strange things trying to earn that smile. So, I basked in it for a few seconds and watched as it slowly collapsed into a thoughtful, lop-sided frown. Then she gyrated her wrist a few times, fast-forwarding through further banter.

“So,” she began, “a woman comes into my office. Very put together. Lithe and dressed all in black: black boots up to her calves, black jeans, a black collared shirt, a black leather purse, black sunglasses perched on her black hair which was twisted into a tight bun on the side of her head just behind the ear. Even her brown eyes looked like huge, inky pupils. No nail polish, though, which surprised me.”
“She probably thought it would have been too matchy-matchy,” I suggested.
“My thinking exactly,” she nodded, “any color but black would have been wrong and black would have been too much of a good thing.”
“So, this case is about nail polish?” I asked.
“Aren’t they all?”

This was an old joke between us. One of the older instructors at the Institute liked to say—thought he was being progressive by saying—that the difference between male detectives and female detectives is that male detectives solve cases by knowing what time the football game is on while female detectives solve cases by knowing about types of nail polish.

“So, she walks in and sits down, poised, like she’s doing some kind of neck stretching exercise, and says, ‘I am embarking on my first attempt at writing a novel or possibly a memoir. In either case it will be based on my own life experiences.’ Then she stops talking and looks at me with those big inkwell eyes and all I can think is that I want to tuck a red rose between her ear and the bun on the side of her head.”
“She’s coming to you because she’s writing a book?” I asked. “Does she think you’re a literary agent?”
She shakes her head and says, “After I prompt her a bit she goes on: ‘I’m concerned that my life is not sufficiently eventful to be of interest to anyone beyond my friends and family.'”
“Reasonable concern for a memoirist,” I observed, “but you can always spice up a novel.”
“That’s exactly what I said but she tells me that she doesn’t want to do any spicing up.”
“And you’re not an editor, anyway . . . ”
“Exactly. So, I let the question fill the room, just like they taught us at the Institute, and finally she comes out with it: ‘I’d like you to observe my life for one year and tell me if I will make a worthwhile protagonist.”

I laughed.
“What did you say?”
“What would you have said?”
“It’s tempting to take on a year-long assignment,” I replied, making teetering scales of my palms, “but it seems to me that any woman who comes to a detective dressed all in black with a question like that is probably worth reading about.”

* * *

We met during our second year in the program. I had seen her around campus many times but had never spoken with her. Then we ended up in the same “Advanced Mysteries” class. This was a higher level course with several prerequisites that focused on abstract principles of detection, especially the need to construct shifting narratives during the course of an investigation. At the end of the course we each submitted a paper in which we were required to create and sustain an analogy that completed the statement “A mystery is a __________.” My own paper was a solid but uninspired piece of work called “A Mystery Is An Elephant” that used the old Jainist parable of the six blind men arguing about the characteristics of an elephant based on whichever part of the animal they happened to be touching. Even for a sophomore it was sophomoric work, far too convinced of its own originality. Still, compared to papers with titles like “A Mystery Is A Maze” and “A Mystery Is An Onion” (peeling levels, blah blah blah) mine must have seemed like exceptional work. At least until my classmate presented her paper.

“A mystery is a poem,” she began. “Everyone would agree that a poem is a mystery—indeed it has been suggested that a poem is a machine the purpose of which is to generate mysteries—but I would like to suggest that a mystery is also a poem: that a mystery requires interpretation but that it simultaneously frustrates interpretation. Just as no poem can be interpreted without neglecting or ignoring some of its elements, no mystery can be solved without ignoring many—indeed, most—of the available clues. More importantly, just as a poem can never be truly understood solely through interpretation, neither can any mystery ever truly be understood solely through investigation. To understand a poem is to embrace both the parts that can be understood and the parts that can never be understood. The ideal reader works to interpret a poem even as it allows the wholeness of the poem do its own work on her. The same is true of a mystery. While the purpose of an investigation is to find a solution, the purpose of the mystery we seek to solve is something far greater than simply to be solved or even to resist solution. The purpose of the mystery—which, in truth, has no purpose—is a totality beyond expression, a totality that, for the purposes of this course, I will attempt to define in fleeting terms with the following list: to inspire, create, transcend, and resist. Just as a poem is an expression in words and ideas that itself transcends words and ideas, a mystery is an unknown that exists within the realm of what is known or, at least, knowable.”

That paper changed my life. Until that day I had considered myself a natural detective, someone for whom the essence of investigation was second-nature. I had been weaned on clues and deduction. They were as innate to me as breathing or blinking. Yet I had never considered the nature of what I was trying to solve. I had used the metaphor of the blind men and the elephant to conceal from myself the shallowness of my own thinking.

All along I had been thinking about mysteries in the most simplistic way. A mystery is a puzzle . . . This was my true understanding. Puzzles. Complete in themselves, tidily divided into clues that, when assembled, form a picture that provides an answer. It wasn’t necessary to use—or even find—each piece to see the solution but the pieces were there and the solution was waiting and that was all. That the pieces flowed into one another forming pictures that were themselves in motion had never occurred to me. That each puzzle was actually only a piece in a still larger puzzle would remain beyond my comprehension for many years.

That being a detective means knowing what parts of a mystery not to solve is something I am still trying to learn.

Detective Story #4 — An Expected Visitor

Life is a mystery.

Later he’ll show me the suicide note. First, before he’s even closed the door behind him, he says to me: “Fiction is the great art of telling the truth. I forget who said that but it’s true.”

He’s always forgetting who he’s quoting. Or claiming to quote. I suspect he just makes up his own sayings and aphorisms and attributes them to an imaginary “someone” to lend them gravitas.

He continues: “In other words, truth is narrative. Truth is the essence we distill from the larger whole. And we detectives are writerswe weave narrative for our clients from the vastness of facts.”

“So. What can I do for you, dad?” I ask.

Who but my father walks into a room and starts talking like this?
Any number of other fathers, I suppose.

These are the clues.

A man you’ve seen thousands of times appears in your office to renew an old argument. Or pick an old fight. He does this every month or two. When you look at his bald, bearded head you think it looks like the bust of some wise orator from antiquity come to life. You think this because he is your father and because he is your father you also think many other things.

If one is intimately familiar with a recurring situation (such as those created by family dynamics) it can be easy to overlook valuable clues. Immersion in a ritual can create a culture of assumption that interferes with one’s ability to detect minor variations. It seems to be human nature to experience a period of diminished perception in the presence of repetition. When one does perceive a difference, however, it is common to overestimate its importance. It seems to be human nature to attribute unwarranted significance to any deviation from the norm. It is important to avoid both of these errors.

So, I study him carefully as he stands in the doorway of my office. Olive shirt, faded. Sweat stains ringing his armpits. Corduroy pants, beige. No jacket (corduroy, matching pants) but the pit stains explain its absence: hot day. Glasses, bifocals (horn-rimmed). Desert boots, brown suede. His preferred shoe: crepe-soled so they make hardly any noise when he walks. Hair at its usual range of length, thinning. Beard also usual length, graying. No jewelry, as ever. The usual jingling in his pockets: keys, change, lighter. The shape of his overstuffed leather wallet is visible through the front of his pants, accentuated by a rectangle of faded fabric outlining the bulge of the wallet itself. From the pocket of his shirt protrudes the top of a small vinyl notebook and the small stylus that slides into its narrow spine.

None of this has changed in twenty years. The shirts and notebooks and pens and wallets and shoes are all only incidentally different, replacements for nearly identical predecessors. The difference between each iteration reveals nothing other than the usual wear and tear that occurs in an entropic universe.

He takes his place in the seat across from me then looks over the rims of his glasses and nods at the sign hanging on the wall behind me.

“Life is a mystery and these are the clues?” He says, squinting, pretending to read the words he already knows, that he has seen dozens of times. “Nadie, are you still holding to that old line after all these years?”

I don’t answer. I remain still, a bland expression on my face. It’s no use. He is pushing my buttons so something has to happen.

This is what happens: I lean towards the coffee mug on my desk. On the side of the white mug is the image of a heart (pink, fading) between two words that have long since disappeared. The mug is full of pens. I pull out a retractable ballpoint that I can click. My father hates clicking.


“Have I ever told you why I became a detective,” he says. It’s not a question. He tells me every time we talk.


“Because I couldn’t become a writer. I have no talent for staring down a blank page until it fills with narrativeno ability to bring patterns out from nothing. What I can do, however, is peer into a jumble of patterns and subtract what is not essential.”

Click, click.

“People need detectives,” he continues, “because everything in life is connected.”
“You make life sound like a conspiracy.”
“Life is a conspiracy,” he says.
I frown.
“You disagree?”
“I don’t understand what that means.”
“Do you know the etymology of the word conspiracy?”
“No,” I say, “but I’m not really a fan of etymological arguments.”
“It means ‘to share the same breath’what better definition of life?”
“Very clever,” I say, knowing he hates the that phrase, the conversational equivalent of a click.


Life . . . is . . . a mysssstery,” he says looking up over his glasses, slowly tasting the words. “I suppose there is something in that. [Click, click] Life is a murder mystery and we are all the victimslike that old movie with Edmond O’Brien . . . You know the one I mean . . .”
The story of a man who is poisoned and spends his remaining days solving his own murder.
“Yes. D.O.A. We’re all solving our own murder. In that sense I think it is reasonable to say life is a mystery.”
“That’s no mystery at all,” I say. “Life is the killer. Everyone knows that.”

From his front pocket he removes his small metal lighter. He hasn’t smoked in years but he still carries the same lighter: a metal square with a cap that angles back on an embedded hinge. It makes a flicking sound followed by a ping when he flips it open with his thumb. Flick: ping. Then with a lazy twist of the wrist he snaps it shut. Snap.

Flick: ping. Snap.


My clicking pen seems weak by comparison, a solitary sound that loses potency with each repetition. So, I click a few times. He flip ping snaps a few times. We look at each other.

Click flick:ping Snap. Click click. Flip:ping Snap. ClickFlip:ping Snap. Click click.

We look at each other some more.

The moment is so familiar that it feels infinite. I could be five years old or fifteen or twenty-five or fifty. Abstraction. All of this has happened, has been happening, and will go on happening for so many years that it is like it is not happening at all.

Clicking, flicking, pinging, snapping.

Nothing happens. I am there but I imagine the scene, subtracting as much as possible. What remains is the two of us facing each other in a roomful of blackness, floating through a starless night. Or maybe there are stars: circling around us, drifting slowly, dying in the distance. The patterns and rhythms are so established that I hardly need to be present for them. None of it can happen without me but I feel like the choices are pre-ordained; not made but simply realized. Enacted. I am adrift in familiarity.

“Well, it’s always nice to see you dad. Now that we’ve each peed on one another’s leg is there anything I can do for you?”

He returns the lighter to his bulky pocket. I ease my thumb off the plunger of the pen. Truce. Down to business.

“I’d like to bring you in on an investigation,” he says.

This is new. Or, rather, old. I haven’t worked with my father since I helped with phones and filing on evenings and weekends when I was a teenager.

“I’m surprised,” I say, twisting deeper into the chair. “Is it a big case?

My father has been known to hire operatives on some of his larger cases from time to time.

“Not in the way you mean,” he says, “but the client certainly thinks so.”
“Don’t they always?”
“That they do,” he says and slings his right leg over his left at the knees. “It’s a suicide investigation.”

That can only mean one thing. Motive.

My father handles a lot of suicide investigations. Homicide detectives are only interested in homicides. Once they know that what appears to be a suicide actually is a suicide—not a homicide made to look like a suicide—their interest ends. A homicide investigation requires suspects or it dies. A suicide investigation has no suspects and is about motive.

“Is there a note?” I ask.

I expect him to say no. A suicide note is a signed confession. The presence of a note usually means the absence of an investigation.

“There’s a note,” he says and hands me a 3×5 index card. I rotate it in my hands and read over the sentence handwritten in small, tidy blue script on the unlined side of the card.

This is easier. — Donald.

Detective Story #3 — Love Case

“I want you to investigate my love life,” he said.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s nowhere.”
“What do you mean? Be specific.”
He opened his mouth but didn’t say anything, so I went on.
“Here’s why I’m asking: a couple years ago I had a client come in with basically the same request. ‘Investigate my love life; it sucks.’ So, I spent a week doing intensive surveillance of his life, watching his interactions. Turns out the guy is afraid to talk to women. No big mystery there. I’m not so hard up for billable time that I need to follow you around for a week watching you sit in restaurants silently pining for waitresses.”

I thought he might be offended but, from his slight pout, I could see he was disappointed to learn he was not the first person to come to me with this kind of request. When you’re a private detective who routinely focuses on the mundane and quotidian (my active cases at the moment included helping one client find her keys) it’s to be expected that clients struggling with matters of with heart will come through the door.

“Do you get a lot of cases like this?” He asked.
I forget sometimes that, while most women who come in to see me feel better knowing their situation isn’t unusual, many male clients need to feel their case is one-of-a-kind. I suppose it makes them feel better about asking for help.

“Do I get a lot of requests to investigate a client’s love life?”
He nodded.
“You could say I investigate little else.”

He became openly disappointed, deflated. I had to admit I was enjoying myself. A little too much. I decided to give him a break.

“Infidelity—real or imagined—is the bread and butter of most private detective agencies.”

Love cases have more dark corners than any other kind of investigation and adultery is one of the darkest of these but everyone thinks of adultery as tawdry and unoriginal. I would have bet $23.80 that he wasn’t an adultery case: no ring and none of the rumpled clothes and bloodshot eyes that are tell-tale signs of a jealous lover. And I was right. He lightened visibly, his body raised back up like time-lapse footage of a wilting plant played in reverse.

Life is a mystery and these are the clues: now that he felt unique again he leaned back in his chair and spent the next few minutes being a pompous ass.

His speech fell into a four-part structure that will be familiar to anyone who has ever been asked for a favor by someone who tries to mask their embarrassment by making their request sound more important than it is.

Part One – Invocation of the muse. A sort of throat clearing as he pretended to give me a sketch of himself and his situation while working up the courage to ask me to do whatever it was he wanted me to do.
Part Two – Background. A clumsy but more detailed repetition of Part One that basically amounted to an (implied) admission that he’d been in a couple long-term relationships over the years but was now single again. And lonely.
Part Three – Substance of the Request. Before stating it clearly (due to some gentle guidance from me) he stated it vaguely and at length with still more repetitions, several prefatory justifications and qualifications, and even an apology or two.
Part Four – Conclusion. A messy and entirely unnecessary re-statement of everything mentioned above with one or two new details that were given undeserved significance and urgency, all in an attempt to delay hearing whatever my answer was going to be.

It all boiled down to this sentence—or would have if he had actually expressed himself this clearly: “I’ve been dating a lot lately (mostly meeting women online) and I’m struggling with the casualness of it all, so I’d like you to investigate these women and let me know if any of them are interested in something long term.”

“In general? Or with you in particular?”
“With me in particular.”
I nodded and made a note.
“Is that something you can handle?” He said.
I smiled, then said, “I think so. How many women are we talking about”
The number was a little surprising. I had expected him to say two. He seemed like a binary kind of guy. Then again, the mind is most comfortable with threes, so I suppose it made sense that he would ask for help when he hit four. Either way, I wondered what sort of man could be dating four women and say his love life was nowhere.

“Okay,” I said, “I want to begin by observing you on a date with each woman. I’ll be honest with you: while this gives me a chance to see if there is any obvious chemistry, my main reason is to ensure that these are women you actually know and are already dating.”

He nodded a bit too vaguely for my taste.

“I want to be clear,” I said slowly, pausing for emphasis. “I will not investigate any women I do not see you meet with for a date—public setting, actual conversing, at least an hour. These need to be women who know you and trust you enough to meet you on their own time.”

“I understand,” he said, looking chastened and affronted. That was a good sign. The innocent always look chastened in the face of accusations (even implied ones) because they tend to search themselves for guilt and rarely hold themselves blameless. Then they look affronted because they resent not only the false accusation but also having been forced to search themselves in this way.

Still, expressions are difficult to read.

“Maybe you do understand,” I said, hoping to send his conscience on another expedition, “but I want to be sure this gets through. In the past clients have hired me to ‘investigate their love life’ when all they really want to do is outsource their stalker tendencies. Not that I’m talking about out and out sociopaths—just shy losers who wanted me to see if any of their crushes were reciprocated by invading the privacy of the women they were interested in. It usually takes about three or four hours to figure out what’s going on and I resent the waste of my time.”

“I understand,” he said again, this time in an assuring tone that felt genuine even as it carried undertones of impatience. His conscience had already cleared him and he was ready to move on.

“Again, just to be clear: most of the information I gather I will keep to myself. In other words, I will share my conclusions with you but not much else. Don’t expect me to provide you with a dossier about each of these women. I’ll do some digging and observing but all you’ll get from me is conclusions: yes; no; maybe.”
“That’s all I care about.”
“Finally,” I said, “I should tell you that there is a much easier and cheaper way to go about this.”
“Women talk,” I said.
“To each other, you mean?”
“Well, yes,” I acknowledged, “but they also talk to you. Especially if you ask them things. You’re already dating these four women—asking them directly what they’re looking for is much easier and probably more accurate than paying me. At least one or two of them is likely to appreciate it.”
“I suppose you’re right,” he said without much conviction.
“But. . .” I prompted him.
He smiled, “But I’d like to know who is interested in a long-term relationship before I start having those conversations.”

Lessons – 2014

Every summer for the past seven years I have been privileged to enjoy an absurd bounty of days off from work. This year’s hiatus from the workaday world was my longest yet: 95 days. That sort of time off would be perfect for traveling the world, of course, but unpaid leave from a low-paying job is no way to finance globetrotting adventures. Besides, leaving Oregon just when the state is at its most spectacular seems silly. So, while I did do some traveling, I have sought most of my adventures in the realm of minutiae. “To see a world in a grain of sand,” as William Blake has it. Even the smallest, quietest life contains galaxies and for the last three months it has been my privilege to devote myself to exploring such galaxies full-time. With exploration comes learning, so, for the third consecutive year, I have collected what I have learned for you, dear Reader. I do not pretend these lessons are profound or true in any universal sense. They may not even be of interest. Nevertheless:

– Thanks to the Harry Potter novels the name Seamus has, at long last, found widespread acceptance in the US.
– Wearing a Charlotte’s Web tee-shirt will get you a lot of smiles and compliments. It will also get you invited to Bible Camp.
– One could probably spend three months discussing the concept of grace— maybe a week defining the word.
– If you’ve overheard one conversation where someone recommends the film American Psycho, you’ve overheard them all. (“…there’s this one amazing scene where a bunch of guys are comparing business cards…”)
– It’s impossible to be glum after an hour of Zumba.
– I am done with Wes Anderson. DONE.
– Out past 8:00? Think again.
– Invisibility is a conditional state and diminishes over time. Related: transparency counteracts invisibility.
– It still surprises people that I’m pretty damned good with kids.
– There is always something to celebrate.
– I’m really tall.
– “Happiness is an angel with a serious face.”
– When peacocks strut around displaying their feathers, people are much more impressed than peahens.
– Contrary to past experience I am, apparently, capable of winning a contest that requires luck.
– Little did I know on Day 2 of my time off that when I watched Damian Lillard’s buzzer-beater through a restaurant window with an impromptu sidewalk gathering of Blazer fans, I would repeat this feat myself on Day 91.
– Somewhere along the line I became one of those people who can have an entire conversation about working out at the gym.
– Some people genuinely like Ace of Base.
– “Some people want nothing and need nothing and are free.”
– A dull, unsettling weight in pit of your stomach can be a necessary precondition for progress.
– If a young woman makes eye contact from half a block away and then gives me a broad, welcoming smile, I’m about to be asked to sponsor a Third World child again.
– Overproof rum.
– Sometimes the right song on the radio is all it takes.
– “To be accessible is to lose magic.”
– Getting a band-aid stuck in your chest hair is unpleasant.
– Three words on a tee-shirt can speak volumes.
– Ethan Hawke is the greatest stone skipper I have ever seen. (According to Guinness, though, the record is 51 skips.)
– Hopped cider is an abomination
– Demonstrating what a blog is on a barroom table is surprisingly easy.
– Getting to the first step can take a lot of time, effort, and patience . . . then the dance begins.


The cherry blossoms
billow softly in the breeze
like flakes of pink snow.

Scylla & Charybdis (Chapter 9)

First, the usual brief summary of the Homeric basis for this year’s episode. In Book 12 of The Odyssey, Odysseus and his men are forced to choose between sailing a course that passes near Scylla, a six-headed monster that will claim one member of the crew for each of its heads, or Charybdis, a massive whirlpool that will engulf the entire ship. Odysseus chooses the lesser evil but makes the mistake of battling the indestructible Scylla (which he was advised not to do) thereby losing far more than six members of his crew. When we say we are stuck “between a rock and a hard place” or “the devil and the deep blue sea” we are recalling Odysseus’ impossible choice. In Ulysses, the choice is between two great world views: the lofty idealism of the Platonists and the grounded analysis of Aristotelians—Big Picture versus Small Picture; Micro versus Macro; Idealism versus Materialism, and so on.

The central action of Chapter 9, set in the National Library, is a sprawling debate about Shakespeare between Stephen Dedalus and a shifting cast of actual figures from Dublin’s literary scene, including the poet George Russell (better known by his pseudonym AE). These literary lights are the whirlpool Charybdis of the chapter, quasi-Platonist members of the Irish Literary Renaissance that, in Joyce’s view, too often wallowed in silly mysticism and sentimental nationalism. Adding to the sense of Platonic abstraction, each figure appears in the novel under their pen name—these are not the men in question, only a depiction of their own ideals of themselves. In a surprising, witty touch the chapter’s Scylla, Jesuit-trained in the art of Artistotelian thinking (and sniping), is Stephen himself.

As Declan Kiberd writes in Ulysses & Us “this is the wisdom offered by the story of Scylla and Charybdis—the healthy mind must not submit to either extreme, but entertain both possibilities in a mode of openness.” Stephen’s mind, however, is not healthy. Indeed he is of many minds (like the six-headed Scylla) all of them apparently dedicated to lashing out at others and himself. He is consumed by guilt at his behavior during his mother’s death (he refused to pray with her), by anger with his father, by envy of the success of other literary Dubliners, by frustration at his failure to deliver on his own promising talent . . . and on and on. All these resentments become manifest as he tries to impress and outduel Russell and company in a sort of intellectual battle royal by trotting out his elaborate theory (which he later admits he does not actually believe) about the relationship between Shakespeare’s life and his plays.

As a result, Chapter 9 is a challenging episode filled with allusions and references not only to Shakespeare but to Greek philosophy, the mystical jargon of Theosophy, the Boer War, Irish literature, French poetry, and even American songwriter Stephen Foster, to name only a few. One could easily follow any (or all) of these ideas down countless intellectual rabbit holes—or should I say whirlpools? One could also engage in equally endless pedantic bickering over the origins and interpretations of these myriad allusions and references. Many Joyce scholars and academics have, in fact, done both. At one point, dismissing the ethereal neo-Platonism of his adversaries, Stephen reflects, “the life esoteric is not for ordinary person”—a remark that could be applied to much of what is said in Chapter 9. Which is not to say the episode is an outright condemnation of either philosophy or of the characters in the chapter. There is much wisdom to be found in Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle, and the many other writers and thinkers referenced by Stephen and his rivals. The fault lies in clinging too strictly to any one idea or school of thought, a common mistake made by those who, like the men in this chapter, are enamored of the life of the mind.

But where is our modern Odysseus in all this? Where is Leopold Bloom? The lesson of the chapter is not a lesson that Bloom needs to learn, so we see him only briefly: first in silhouette as he speaks (unheard by us) to the librarian about tracking down an old advertisement and later as he passes between Stephen and his spiteful friend Buck Mulligan, thereby symbolically underscoring Stephen’s decision to end their friendship. Bloom avoids Odysseus’ fate by leaving Scylla and Charybdis to do battle with each other. Stephen, though, despite all his knowledge, still has a lot to learn. Early in the chapter he reflects on the temptations of books and libraries, comparing libraries to cemeteries and books to coffins: “Coffined thoughts around me, in mummycases, embalmed in spice of words.” Of books he thinks: “an itch of death is on them.” And yet Stephen is an aspiring writer, a teacher, someone who is well and widely read. And Ulysses is a book. So what are we to make of this bookish condemnation of books, this chapter that uses erudition to condemn itself?

Often in Ulysses Joyce attempts to create a first-hand experience for the reader. The Scylla and Charybdis episode is a striking example of this. Like the characters we, as readers, are forced us to make our own imperfect choice: do we pore over the references and try to track down down each allusion or do we ignore them altogether and deny ourselves the wisdom they contain? In order to fully understand what you are reading, you must make the effort but in order to follow Bloom’s example you should avoid them. Bloom, after all, is precisely the sort of person who would abandon reading Ulysses after a few pages—if he attempted it in the first place.

This is a lesson for bookish people, for people who run the risk of adoring literature and the arts at the expense of their lives. Coffined thoughts may be a dusty replacement for the living minds of their creators but they remain our only means of gaining some slight victory over death. Coffined thoughts bridge the gaps of time and space that exist between ourselves and others; between our current selves and our past selves. It would be a grave error to ignore those tombish tomes. Yet we shouldn’t fetishize them either, mistaking the enjoyment of those ghostly records of someone else’s lapsed life for living itself.

Having said that, here’s an excerpt from Chapter 9. May it enrich your life!

This section, which comes fairly early in the chapter, gives a taste of the debate, of Stephen’s biographical reading of Shakespeare (Hamlet, in this case) and also of his guilty conscience over, among other things, the fact that he owes AE/George Russell a pound (which he misspent at a brothel). That guilt culminates in one of the more famous puns in Ulysses: AEIOU. As usual, I’ve also included an audio clip of the the excerpt from the 1982 RTE full-cast production of Ulysses.

—What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy. One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners. Elizabethan London lay as far from Stratford as corrupt Paris lies from virgin Dublin. Who is the ghost from limbo patrum, returning to the world that has forgotten him? Who is king Hamlet?

John Eglinton shifted his spare body, leaning back to judge:


—It is this hour of a day in mid June, Stephen said, begging with a swift glance their hearing. The flag is up on the playhouse by the bankside. The bear Sackerson growls in the pit near it, Paris garden. Canvasclimbers who sailed with Drake chew their sausages among the groundlings.

Local colour. Work in all you know. Make them accomplices.

—Shakespeare has left the huguenot’s house in Silver street and walks by the swanmews along the riverbank. But he does not stay to feed the pen chivying her game of cygnets towards the rushes. The swan of Avon has other thoughts.

Composition of place. Ignatius Loyola, make haste to help me!

—The play begins. A player comes on under the shadow, made up in the castoff mail of a court buck, a wellset man with a bass voice. It is the ghost, the king, a king and no king, and the player is Shakespeare who has studied Hamlet all the years of his life which were not vanity in order to play the part of the spectre. He speaks the words to Burbage, the young player who stands before him beyond the rack of cerecloth, calling him by a name:

Hamlet, I am thy father’s spirit
bidding him list. To a son he speaks, the son of his soul, the prince, young Hamlet and to the son of his body, Hamnet Shakespeare, who has died in Stratford that his namesake may live for ever.

—Is it possible that that player Shakespeare, a ghost by absence, and in the vesture of buried Denmark, a ghost by death, speaking his own words to his own son’s name (had Hamnet Shakespeare lived he would have been prince Hamlet’s twin) is it possible, I want to know, or probable that he did not draw or foresee the logical conclusion of those premises: you are the dispossessed son: I am the murdered father: your mother is the guilty queen. Ann Shakespeare, born Hathaway?

—But this prying into the family life of a great man, Russell began impatiently.

Art thou there, truepenny?

—Interesting only to the parish clerk. I mean, we have the plays. I mean when we read the poetry of King Lear what is it to us how the poet lived? As for living, our servants can do that for us, Villiers de l’Isle has said. Peeping and prying into greenroom gossip of the day, the poet’s drinking, the poet’s debts. We have King Lear: and it is immortal.

Mr Best’s face appealed to, agreed.

Flow over them with your waves and with your waters,
Mananaan, Mananaan MacLir…

How now, sirrah, that pound he lent you when you were hungry?

Marry, I wanted it.

Take thou this noble.

Go to! You spent most of it in Georgina Johnson’s bed, clergyman’s daughter. Agenbite of inwit.

Do you intend to pay it back?

O, yes.

When? Now?

Well… no.

When, then?

I paid my way. I paid my way.

Steady on. He’s from beyant Boyne water. The northeast corner. You owe it.

Wait. Five months. Molecules all change. I am other I now. Other I got pound.

Buzz. Buzz.

But I, entelechy, form of forms, am I by memory because under everchanging forms.

I that sinned and prayed and fasted.

A child Conmee saved from pandies.

I, I and I. I.


—Do you mean to fly in the face of the tradition of three centuries? John Eglinton’s carping voice asked. Her ghost at least has been laid for ever. She died, for literature at least, before she was born.

—She died, Stephen retorted, sixtyseven years after she was born. She saw him into and out of the world. She took his first embraces. She bore his children and she laid pennies on his eyes to keep his eyelids closed when he lay on his deathbed.

Mother’s deathbed. Candle. The sheeted mirror. Who brought me into this world lies there, bronzelidded, under few cheap flowers. Liliata rutilantium.

I wept alone.

John Eglinton looked in the tangled glowworm of his lamp.

—The world believes that Shakespeare made a mistake, he said, and got out of it as quickly and as best he could.

—Bosh! Stephen said rudely. A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.

Portals of discovery opened to let in the quaker librarian, softcreakfooted, bald, eared and assiduous.

—A shrew, John Eglinton said shrewdly, is not a useful portal of discovery, one should imagine. What useful discovery did Socrates learn from Xanthippe?

—Dialectic, Stephen answered: and from his mother how to bring thoughts into the world.